The first Washington Redskins game I remember attending was their November 10, 1991 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons during their last Super Bowl season. I was not yet eight years old.
Thanks largely to my father, who had been cheering for the Redskins since he was a kid in 1960s Alabama (the owner at the time, George Preston Marshall, had effectively promoted the team on television in the South), I was a diehard fan. Of course, I remember the eight touchdowns the boys in Burgundy and Gold scored that day. My most vivid memory was not athletic, but social — it was the first time in my life I was immersed in black culture.
I grew up in what was at the time one of the outer D.C. suburbs of Virginia. Back then, its rural character was still visible in pockets, but it was increasingly being overrun by suburban sprawl. It was predominantly white. Driving up for the game that day, we sat in a part of old RFK Stadium that was largely patronized by black Americans.
My father seemed to be at home in that setting. Some of his closest friends in Alabama were black. He had lived in predominantly black neighborhoods when attending college in Richmond. And, at a time many medical professionals refused to go into Anacostia, the most violent part of the District, he agreed to make house calls to serve the neighborhood’s mostly black residents. Witnessing my father’s convivial spirit, all of us cheering our home team on together, I felt a deep, communal bond with Washington’s black American fans.
Since the newly christened “Washington Football Team” surrendered to woke capital and agreed to change its name in July, I’ve been reminded of that experience. Certainly, the Washington Post had been urging the name change for decades, alongside many liberal activists who accused the franchise of perpetuating racist, demeaning stereotypes.
The region’s educated elite can also probably be added to that list. Indeed, when the Washington Post in 2013 conducted a poll of D.C. residents, they found that 34 percent of all area college graduates wanted the team to change its name, compared to 21 percent of those with “less formal education.”
Despite the team’s years of mediocrity and failure, the Redskins remained the most popular team among the area’s black residents. That points to an interesting and important divide in the nation’s capital. Indeed, as a 2011 Post article observed, “the Redskins have an unrivaled hold on Washington’s black community.” At that time, two-thirds of black American fans had a favorable view of the team and four in 10 felt that way “strongly.” As the authors noted, black pastors in D.C. dismissed their parishioners to not miss kickoff, while D.C. teachers gave their mostly black students problems that found creative ways to incorporate the Redskins and their arch-rivals, the Cowboys.
Consider, in contrast, the fanbase of the Washington Nationals, the city’s most popular team, which last year brought the city its first World Series title since 1924. Nationals fans are far more likely to be white, as well as middle-class or upper-middle-class. They are the team of the city’s technocratic transplants, exemplified in the viral video of the celebrating Nats fan who, asked how long he’s been cheering for the team responded, “Since today!” As a suburban Virginian friend of mine pointed out to me, Nationals Park (pre-COVID) is typically filled with K Street insiders texting on their phones.
Whereas the Redskins franchise, to its deserved shame, has a penchant for sexual harassment and misogyny, the Nationals play by the rules of woke culture, further earning the support of the city’s changing demographic. When it was discovered that star shortstop Trea Turner was responsible for some “homophobic” tweets while in college, the team quickly forced him to apologize.
“There are no excuses for my insensitive and offensive language on Twitter,” Turner soon admitted, while Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo labeled Turner’s comments “inexcusable” and declared that he had spoken with the shortstop. One of the team’s most dominant relievers, Sean Doolittle, is annoyingly vocal in his liberal politics.
The divide between the Nationals and the Redskins, and their respective fanbases, exemplifies the divisions both of the D.C. area and the nation. The Nationals (who, God bless ‘em, I’ve loved and supported since their first game in 2005), is the team of the globalist, meritocratic, Johnny-come-lately, unprincipled “nowheres.” The Redskins are the team of blue-collar, multi-generational “somewheres,” who are willing to maintain their allegiance to a team that hasn’t been consistently good in 30 years.
Nats fans represent the winners of our globalist, technocratic system; Skins fans embody the losers. Ironically, despite all the burnishing of their woke credentials, the Nationals, and their largely white fanbase have been pilloried by black D.C. natives for gentrification that has priced established black families out of their historic neighborhoods, including the very one where the Nats currently play.
I recently took my car to my local mechanic, like me, a Northern Virginia native who grew up cheering for the Redskins. Discussing the team’s name-change announcement, he shook his head and muttered, “Some people just need to find something to get offended about.”
Although he grew up in Fairfax County, he can no longer afford to live there on his mechanic’s salary and resides more than 20 miles to the south. As the famous “Saturday Night Live” black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks demonstrated, blue-collar whites often have more in common with blacks than many realize. The Redskins are yet one more thing leftist transplants have taken from people with real allegiances to a place and its culture.
While we talked, I spotted another mechanic, a Latino, in the garage wearing a dirty, backward Redskins hat (backwards, I suppose the woke mob would say, in more ways than one). Presumably a descendant of Spaniards and indigenous American peoples, he obviously doesn’t take offense to the name or the accompanying image of a proud Native American warrior.
No matter. Everyone who sports Redskins paraphernalia, notably the salt-of-the-earth blue-collar folk who make every city in this country function, must all be bigots, rather than real people trying to identify in meaningful ways with their communities and take pride in their local teams.
The most interesting story in Washington, D.C. sports in 2020 isn’t the football franchise’s name change, nor is it whether its baseball team will be able to repeat the success of 2019 (unlikely at this point, given their many injuries). It’s what the divergence between its two fanbases says about the city and an increasingly divided nation.